ORLANDO, Fla. -- One of the NFL's pillars, Ralph Wilson Jr., has died at the age of 95.
Buffalo Bills president Russ Brandon announced the news Tuesday at the NFL Annual Meeting, an event that Wilson began attending more than forty years ago. Wilson was the founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills, and the last living founder of the American Football League.
"I speak for everyone within the Bills organization when I say that we are all suffering a deep and profound sadness with the passing of our Hall of Fame owner Mr. Wilson," Brandon said. "We have lost our founder, our mentor, our friend, and this is a very difficult time for us all."
" ... Mr. Wilson had a relentless passion, a deep love for his Buffalo Bills, the City of Buffalo and the National Football League," Brandon continued. "He also loved the Bills fans and all of the people of Western New York who embraced the Bills."
Once a minority owner of the Detroit Lions, Wilson founded the Bills in 1959. They joined the NFL in 1970, a merger that Wilson helped to spark during discussions with the NFL's Colts.
Wilson, a World War II veteran, was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009. Under his stewardship, the Bills won two AFL titles (1964 and 1965), and made it to four Super Bowls from 1990 to 1994. The Billsreleased a statement Tuesday that spoke to his impact in the Buffalo community. Wilson was the only original NFL owner to keep his team in the same city.
Brandon said it was "fitting" the news broke this week because "no one loved this league more than Ralph Wilson and his fellow owners and his players."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell put Wilson's impact on the league in perspective.
"Ralph Wilson was a driving force in developing pro football into America's most popular sport," Goodell said in a statement. "He loved the game and took a chance on a start-up league in 1960 as a founding owner of the American Football League. He brought his beloved Bills to Western New York and his commitment to the team's role in the community set a standard for the NFL.
"As a trusted advisor to his fellow league owners and the commissioner, Ralph always brought a principled and common-sense approach to issues. His lifelong loyalty to the game was instrumental in his richly deserved induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We are grateful for his many contributions to the NFL and offer our heartfelt sympathy to the Wilson family."
The news of Wilson's death quickly made a deep impression on the owners here in Orlando and around the NFL.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft remembered Wilson as a "gentlemen" that warmly welcomed Kraft to the league. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen ross spoke of Wilson's great legacy and how well respected he was within football. New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson remembered a man who didn't "let anyone pull anything over" on him.
"They don't make them like Ralph Wilson," Brandon said. "They just don't."